Until Bill Melton came to Chicago, the South Side's idea of a big hit man was Golf Bag Sam Hunt, who was partial to pulling out a shotgun instead of a niblick in tense situations. Golf Bag contributed to his own untimely end by lingering too long one evening in front of a brightly lit drugstore. Melton has also been a target recently—of pitchers who consider his American League home-run lead suitable cause for taking aim at him.
Such are the hazards when you have accumulated 25 home runs by the end of July. Melton, a well-developed 26-year-old, slammed three of them last week—one of which beat New York in the 12th inning—despite a taped hand, sore from warding off errant fastballs. "I haven't learned how to get out of the way," he confessed.
Still, the gritty performance in the midst of a six-game White Sox winning streak should help him attain the recognition he feels has unjustly eluded him. Only last month in Detroit a writer asked, "How does it feel to be on the All-Star team in your rookie year?" That especially hurt, because last season, his second full year with the White Sox, Melton set the alltime club home-run record with 33 and complained it was "the best-kept secret in baseball." The career record of 134, held by Minnie Minoso in 10 years of play, could be Melton's in less than five.
Melton discovered his aptitude for baseball rather late. He had not played since the Little League in Duarte, Calif., when he went out for the Citrus Junior College team in 1964 when he was 18. That impulse to take up baseball again came only after he tired of selling Avon products. In the first year his raw talent drew the attention of White Sox Scout Doc Bennett, who offered him a $4,000 bonus to enter professional ball. Bill held back for twice as much, and his demand was met when Bennett saw him smash a 430-foot homer for a White Sox prospect team.
"It wasn't my ambition to get to the majors," Melton says today with a pleasing, resonant broadcaster's voice. "Baseball was a chance to travel and make money. I never thought about the big league until I reached Double A ball. When I was in the minors I was so bad in so many things I just never thought I'd make it."
Melton's defensive play was his biggest handicap, but he is well past the bungling stage of last year when he made 10 errors in the first 24 games. The last was a pop foul that hit him in the face, broke his nose and led to a new assignment in right field. The defensive metamorphosis of Melton began in earnest when Chuck Tanner took over as manager of the White Sox at the tail end of 1970, the team's worst season in nearly 40 years. Though Melton had played errorless ball in the outfield, Tanner reinstated him at third and taught him to move in slowly with each pitch to improve his range and alertness. Today Melton is an adequate fielder who would be even more so were he able to control a strong scatter arm that has been responsible for most of his 13 errors. Melton's defensive lapses have cost the White Sox three games this year, but he has driven in the team's winning run eight times.
Melton's short-stride uppercut swing is ideally suited for cavernous White Sox Park, where the nine-foot-high left-field fence is 352 feet from home plate. "I'll swing at anything. I don't have a strike zone," says Melton, who struck out in 11 consecutive appearances last year, seven times in an afternoon doubleheader. But this season he has twice cracked home runs in four straight games and has overcome his reputation for hitting only bases-empty homers—he was tagged Napoleon Solo—by hitting 13 with men on, twice, in fact, when the bases were loaded. His batting average is a commendable .282, and his RBIs total 66.
"I don't consider myself a home-run hitter yet," Melton says, "at least not like a Killebrew or a Howard. If I have two more years with more than 30 home runs then I could call myself one."
That a member of the Chicago White Sox could hit home runs with any frequency at all is worthy of attention. The team established its alltime season record of 138 in 1961, an output that was modest anywhere but Chicago—the Sox sluggers stood seventh among the league's 10 teams that year.
Obviously, then, a man who can hit the long ball in a White Sox uniform is bound to attract notice. After the 1969 season, when Melton hit 23 homers, his reputation preceded him all the way to a winter league in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Melton promptly won the first game with a home run and then went the rest of the season without hitting another one. As his batting average settled at around .180, the temper of the Latin fans rose.
"They didn't just boo me," Melton recalls. "They hissed. Their favorite expression was 'muy malo [very bad] Melton,' and they said it while making a cutting sign across their throats. Of course I went for them about as much as they did for me. I didn't even like the country enough to take pictures there. It was all just too unreal. I remember traveling for hours to get to one game and finding out it had been canceled because a revolution was going on."
He is much more agreeably received on the South Side than in South America; his home runs have been a major factor in helping the Sox show a substantial improvement at the gate. Under Tanner the whole team has picked up and now has a shot at second place in the West.
Melton's roommate, Catcher Ed Herrmann, is recording each of Bill's home runs on a chewing-gum wrapper chain that Herrmann hopes will reach 2,160 before season's end—representing 40 homers. "The only problem," says Herrmann, "is that it's all Wrigley gum. Every time Bill hits one out, the owner of the Cubs makes money."
MELTON GOES AFTER RECORD—HIS OWN